In this series of blog lessons, we're looking at how to solo over chord changes by using a simple system I came up with based on four sequences of notes. Check out Part 1 if you haven't already, and if you don't have one already, treat yourself to a looper pedal as it will speed up this entire process and have you wailing over chord changes in no time.
3rds and 7ths
Not all intervals were created equally, and when it comes to soloing over changes by far the most important intervals are the 3rd and 7th of a chord. When guitarists play scales, they tend to give equal importance (dynamics, emphasis etc.) to all the notes in a scale which gives you a technically correct sound, but one that lacks the punch of hitting notes on purpose to make them really stand out and outline the chord. By homing in on these chord tones, you’ll be able to craft solos that really grab people’s attention, are far more melodic, and allow you to use fewer notes to say much more that you would by running up and down a scale.
How to Locate 3rds and 7ths
If we take just the combination of Root (1), 3rd and 7th, you’ll see that there are only four different permutations.
1, 3, 7
1, b3, 7
1, b3, b7
1, 3, b7
The important part is how we transfer this information to the fretboard, so to avoid patterns and rote repetition, we’re going to learn these sequences on single strings as follows. We’ll use C as the root note for all examples.
1, 3, 7 or C, E, B
1, b3, 7 or C, Eb, B
1, b3, b7 or C, Eb, Bb
1, 3, b7 or C, E, Bb
Feel free to move these sequences to the other strings. All you need know is the location of the root note – C in this case – the information is the same on every string.
It’s important that you memorize these sequences now. They are the key to soloing over chord changes using this system. When chord changes are coming at you thick and fast, you want to be doing the least amount of thinking possible to find the ‘right’ notes to land on, and this is it. These four sequences are the building blocks for 90% of the chords you’ll come across when improvising over changes.
How to Practice
Play the 1, 3, 7 or C, E, B over a C Major or Cmaj7 chord using your looper.
Play the 1, b3, 7 or C, Eb, B over a C Minor or CmM7 chord using your looper.
Play the 1, b3, b7 or C, Eb, Bb over a C Minor or Cm7 chord using your looper.
Play the 1, 3, b7 or C, E, Bb over a C Major or C7 chord using your looper.
Do I need to learn these patterns on all the strings? Yes, but not right now. Learn them on as many strings as you can manage, prioritizing the top four strings (D, G, B, E) as this is where most improvisation is done on guitar. You can continue learning the information in this book using a single string, then when you’re ready, you can apply it to the others.
Playing up and down a single string feels awkward. It does, but it also gets you out of patterns and makes using your ear easier because you can see the distance between notes on the fretboard. Think of these sequences as markers because they will get you in and out of chord changes.
A Quick Word About Chords and Intervals
Part of knowing how to play over chord changes is knowing the intervals of the chord you’re attempting to improvise over. This might sound obvious, but most guitarists don’t have the slightest idea about the intervals of the chord they’re wailing over, they just know that X scale works over X chord/chord progression and go for it. While this effective to a certain extent, it comes unstuck when you try to play over more complex chord changes, or you come across a chord in a progression that isn’t in the key.
If we take a basic major chord, its intervals are 1, 3, and 5 which means if you play any of these intervals/notes when improvising, they’re going to sound good. In the previous chapter, we were playing two sets of intervals over a major chord (1, 3 and 7 or 1, 3, and b7).
Now, since our simple 1, 3, 5 major chord does not contain a 7, we can color the chord with either the 7 or the b7 when improvising over it. Try it with your looper.
If our chord were a major 7, which contains the intervals 1, 3, 5, and 7, and you played a b7, it would clash with the natural 7. Try it with your looper.
The same is true when applied to a basic minor chord (1, b3, 5). You could color the chord by adding either the 7 or the b7 to it – try it with your looper.
You can color a chord with any of the other intervals, even the discordant ones, to get your desired effect. The takeaway here is to know the intervals in the chord so that you can pick and choose which intervals to play when improvising.
In Part 3, we'll put this knowledge into practice so that you get your first real taste of breaking out of patterns and playing the changes.